Monday, 30 August 2010

Summer slipping away

I can only hope for a typical Polish złota jesień to compensate us for a wet and dull summer (that glorious heatwave in the first half of July excepted). The weather has turned much cooler and there's that ever-threatening afternoon sky that glowers.

The ever-present threat of a cloudburst prevents me from cycling, so I'm using the Park+Ride. Above: the view outside our office, around half past five, looking up ul. Fabryczna.

Above: on my way to the bus stop, along ul. Kośmińska. Less than three minutes from our office, the bus route to Politechnika Metro station has become much better since bus lanes were painted along Trasa Łazienkowska, and a new bus line, the 382, added. Waits are much shorter, the journeys much quicker. I can make it from my office to Ursynów P+R is under 25 minutes.

Above: that same glowering sky at Politechnika Metro. The station entrance is in the foreground, in front of the twin spires of the church at Plac Zbawiciela. As yet no rain. Any second now.

Above: I emerge from the Metro at Ursynów, which has just experienced a shower. I make it to the car without a drop of rain falling on me - lucky, as I had neither hat nor coat. Nor umbrella.

In three weeks time we'll have the autumn equinox and once again slip into the gloom. Over those three weeks we'll lose nearly two hours of daylight.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Dragonfly summer

Each summer, we see an explosion (ie an above-average amount) of a given species of insect life. Sometimes, like in 1997 when the midges were abundant and aggressively seeking human blood, it's unpleasant. Other winged insects pose no nuisance, such as the cockchafer or maybug. My favourite winged insect, however - out in profusion this year - is the dragonfly.

Above: snapped in Powsin today. Below: snapped in our garden last week. The dragonfly, unchanged over 300 million years is, along with the shark, one of evolution's great designs.

Below: this one, bending its ovipositor, was snapped in our garden last week. I'm on the lookout for ones in irridescent blue-green, which are quite sublime.

Dragonflies eat mosquitos, which is another reason to like them. They do not bother humans, but delight us with their shimmering colours, transparent wings and hovering flight.

The fact that there are fewer midges (culex pipiens) than in 1997 - the last flood year when standing water abounded locally - I attribute to this year's profusion of dragonflies. These predators catch and eat midges on the wing and I salute them for it.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Late summer moods, Jeziorki

Moni and I go for a late-summer walk to observe our beloved Jeziorki at the end of a most unusual season. It has been a summer weather-wise characterised by heavy rains and localised flooding. In 14 summers here, we've never seen Jeziorki so wet, the water table so high. Below: Drainage ditch cutting under ul. Dumki. On the horizon, houses on ul. Trombity. Note the algae bloom.

Ul. Dumki is one of many musically-named streets in Ursynów. We live on ul. Trombity (Alpenhorn), we have Sarabandy, named after the Sarabande, a dance, and Baletowa ('Ballet Street'). Closer into town there's even an ul. Lambady. (Ah! The Lambada. The dance hit of the summer of 1989. Soundtrack to a peaceful revolution. I recall walking into the courtyard of my aunt's flat on Filtrowa, windows of every flat wide open, radios all blaring that song.)

So what's a Dumka? It is "a Slavic (specifically Ukrainian) epic ballad … generally thoughtful or melancholic in character." Moni points out that in Polish usage, it is a song of loss, as sung by the emigres who fled Poland to Paris after the unsuccessful 1831 insurrection against the Russians.

Left: This is probably the first crossing (on foot or indeed by any form of locomotion) of ul. Dumki from south to north since the snows melted. This particular feat could not be achieved back in July. This time, our Barbour wellies enable us to wade through the black water, stinking of decayed vegetation and covered in algae. My light-coloured trousers, however, still get splashed with smelly black muck from the depths.

As we walked, we waited for a storm that was ever impending, but never came. We were met by a few minutes of moderate rainfall which soon mercifully petered out. Above: by the railway tracks, looking across to Dawidy Bankowe.

Left: Meadow with brooding sky. The skies here are as they were in the camera, not artificially darkened by filter or Photoshop. No sign of lightning, no sound of thunder, no massive movement of wind. Just the continual threat of a downpour.

Below: ul. Nawłocka, as I mentioned earlier, has been dug up and when the rat-runners come down here on Monday, ignoring the no entry signs, they will be stuck axle-deep in mud. By the time this photo was taken, the brief rainfall has already ceased. Home and dry in three minutes.

These are signs... tokens...

All morning the sky above our house was full of starlings, circling the fields adjoining their nests on the five big trees across the road from us. They chirping away as though in a state of mass agitation. Was it a heavy, impending rain cloud, portending a massive electrical storm? Or the end of summer? They would touch down en masse on the field behind our house, then take off again, fly to their trees then repeat the process. What can such a sign... mean?

In the hours before the Corpus Christi storm, snails started crawling up the sides of our house and beetles swarmed around the garden in huge numbers.

UPDATE: It's three o'clock in the afternoon. No storm, no starlings. So what was all that about then?

UPDATE: Seven o'clock and TVN news is telling us about a tornado that swept across southern Mazowsze, from Łodzkie into Lubelski, visiting Rawa Mazowiecka and Garwolin. Fortunately no fatalities.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Poles, stretch your facial muscles.

A post brought about by a sudden insight as I was washing up after supper. (Salmon omelette*, since you ask). At home we use Fairy washing-up liquid. Available for a long time in Poland. Manufactured for the central and eastern European markets by Procter & Gamble in the Czech Republic. It really does go further than the local brands.

But how does one pronounce 'Fairy' in Polish? But how does one ask for it in Polish at the chemia gospodarcza department of your local GS? Fery? Fejry? Fajry? Fary? No, you cannot pronounce 'Fairy' correctly in Polish using any combination of the six non-nasalised vowel sounds in the Polish alphabet.

How can you distinguish the words 'Ferry', 'fairy' and 'furry' if you are stuck with such a limited palate of vowel sounds?

Three years ago, I was speaking at a conference in Cork, Ireland, co-organised by our Wrocław office. Ilona, the organiser, told me how to get to the hotel where I was staying. She told me to ask the taxi driver for what I heard her say was the 'Merrybridge hotel'.

So there I was. Off the last bus that evening from Dublin Airport, and into the back of a Toyota Avensis.
Me: 'Merrybridge Hotel, please'.
Taxi driver: 'Sorry, sorr, where's dat you be wantin'?'
Me: 'The Merrybridge Hotel?...'
A good deal of consternation, head-scratching, consultation of map.
Taxi driver: 'I can't honestly be thinkin' of where dat is, sorr...' [beat]
'Ah!! The MARYbridge Hotel!'
Children learn to speak between the second and third year of life. Soon after, their facial muscles set in. If you've not learnt to stretch the medial pterygoid muscles and open your jaw significantly wider than necessary for the simple utterance of the short 'uh', 'eh', 'ee' 'oh' and 'ooh' sounds that make up Polish vowel sounds, you'll not be able to make yourself understood in English. Speaking with a paper-cut narrow space between upper and lower teeth, you will never allow you listener to distinguish between you trying to say 'air' and 'err'. Say jej włosy in English. 'Her her?'

A few months ago I found myself at a dinner sitting next to a Polish professor who was telling me about the fur trade movement in the UK. I was stumped. 'Handel futrami?' I asked. Eventually it transpired that he was talking about 'fair trade'. I really didn't catch on.

* Salmon omelette. Ingredients: Two slices of smoked salmon, preferably Alaskan. Three large free-range eggs. Sunflower oil, salt and ground pepper to taste. Take a shallow-sided non-stick frying pan, heat up sunflower oil, throw on the salmon, cut into fine pieces, distribute around pan evenly. Break eggs, whip up with egg whisk, pour onto frying pan. Keep the thing moving. When one side is done, either toss to fry other side, or stick it in the grill to brown. Serve with brown bread and cherry tomatoes. Serves two.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Trombity bisected again

The diggers are at it again, the road's closed (below), so tomorrow morning the motorised commuter community rat-running down ul. Trombity will find their way into work blocked.

What's going on now I'm not sure; we're not due to get town drains for (another) two years; blue pipes I take it mean fresh water. Digging is also underway on ul. Nawłocka. The recently-laid paving stones (kostka brukowa) has been carefully lifted and neatly stacked on pallets.

Ul. Sarabandy is also closed off, so there's now no back way for drivers coming in to town from Magdalenka, Lesznowola or Nowa Iwiczna. Hundreds more cars will now be added to the traffic jam on ul. Puławska. Just as the school year is about to start.

The worst part of it is that there's no viable public transport alternative. There are no trains to Warsaw between 8:10 and 9:22. Unbelievable. The bicycle continues to be the best option.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Warrior or builder soul?

Work on the S79 continues apace; whatever the Supreme Audit Office claims about Poland's readiness for the Euro 2012 football championships, I'm sure that by the time the first match kicks off, you will be able to drive from Sasanki down to Węzeł Lotnisko and then hang a left for Puławska. Whether or not these roads are ultimately joined to Berlin or Moscow is beside the point; my point being that locals will get a lot of local jams unjammed, and that you'll be able to get from the centre of town to Okęcie airport by rail.

I stare out of the train window at the heavy plant. Gosh! This is the front! That military term is used in dispatches when journalists describe the part of the Elka where the work is most intense. And I think back to three weekends ago, when with Ziggy we watched Pacific, the new Hanks/ Spielberg HBO ten-parter about America's war with Japan (1941-45).

Every bit a excellent as Band of Brothers, Pacific is told in forensic detail, a military historian's delight (although both Ziggy and I questioned the greenness of the American tanks and trucks). Seeing the diggers, cranes, pile-drivers, bulldozers, back-hoes, graders and dumpers busy at work on the Elka, I'm somehow brought to mind of the Jeeps, Sherman tanks, DUKWs, Amtraks, deuce-and-halfs, 105mm howitzers and 37mm anti-tank guns that won the Pacific War. And flying overhead into Okęcie airport- the B-29s, C-47s, F6Fs and F4Us.

And I think to myself: why am I more interested in military hardware than in the civil engineering sort? Why do I find the M1A1 carbine, the Garrand rifle and the Browning fifty-cal machine gun infinitely more fascinating than any hand tool or indeed power tool? (By the way, the only tools in our house are to fix my bikes; otherwise, I concur with Hilaire Belloc in his Cautionary Tale, Lord Finchley:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
It struck him dead:
And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan. )

No, it occurred to me that despite the well-known fact that War is Good for Absolutely Nothing (other than ridding the world of tyrants), I find the hardware of War more appealing to me than the hardware of Construction. Or indeed Gardening (no tools for this in our garage either). Despite the fact that the only things guns do is kill people, the only thing bombs and shells do is destroy buildings.

I keep my fascination with military hardware at the theoretical level only, which is entirely safe. And thus it has been from earliest childhood; books about warplanes, tanks, guns, battleships etc., were the staple of what I grew up with. Being able to distinguish Sherman tanks with cast or welded hulls, VVSS or HVSS suspension or 75mm or 76mm gun is not particularly useful in life, but there it is.

So the question is: why? What determines our preferences, our interests, our hobbies? Our genes? Our upbringing? Or something less tangible?

Saturday, 21 August 2010

A Serious Man - interpreting uncertainty

I have been a fan of the Coen Brothers' works ever since watching O Brother Where Art Thou?. The Coens, Ethan and Joel, write, direct and produce together, and over the years have turned out 14 films, most of them masterpieces. Among them some of my favourite films - O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Barton Fink.

But this is a film that rises above all their previous works, outstanding though they all were, and steeped in Jewish wisdom. A Serious Man is a film that haunts - torments even - in the search for meaning, a search that rises beyond the work itself but prompts one to ask deeper questions - of life itself.

A good film is one that you find yourself thinking about the day after you've seen it. A great film is one that stays with you, intruding upon your consciousness, clicking with your day-to-day life, yielding quotable quotes you find yourself using regularly, and prompting you to see it again and again. A Serious Man I first watched on DVD. A few weeks later I watched it in the cinema with Moni. She was so taken with it that she bought the DVD when in England, and we watched it yet again on her return. Then another cinema viewing. I then recommended the film to my brother, who watched the DVD twice over a weekend - and then wrote me several e-mails about it. Many of the ideas below we chewed over together. Here is our interpretation.

Life, God, Certainty, Our Changing Times.
A Serious Man opens with a seemingly unrelated tale, set in Poland at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Velvel, a Jewish trader returns to his shtetl home on winter's night and tells his wife Dora (in Yiddish of course) that his cart broke on the Lublin road, and that he was assisted by Traitle Groshkover, an old family friend upon whom he chanced. His wife tells him that Groshkover died of typhus three years ago; the man must have been a dybbuk. Just then, a knock at the door and standing there is Groshkover himself. Dora then tries to prove that he is a dybbuk, finally stabbing him with an icepick. Groshkover laughs and appears unharmed, but then blood begins to stain his white shirt. He stumbles out of the house into the snowstorm - we are never to know whether or not he was a dybbuk. Uncertainty - a leitmotif of the film.

Cut from Poland in 1900 to Minnesota in 1967. The continuity of Jews' wanderings, a diaspora that leads from eastern Europe to the Great Plains, is implied. So are the massive changes of the first two-thirds of the 20th century; from shtetl to ranch-style bungalow with modern conveniences, TV, hi-fi, electric oven; from horse cart to Detroit steel and rock'n'roll radio. But the overarching continuity is to be found in Hebrew School, where the main part of the film begins; in the Yiddish song Der Milner's Trern which our protagonist listens to; at the synagogue; and in Rabbi Marshak, who like the school teacher Turchik is old enough to remember the shtetl in the times of Velvel and Dora. Change - is another leitmotif of the film. "The old order changeth, yielding to the new," said Withnail's Uncle Monty, quoting Tennyson's La Morte D'Arthur. The new order is one of uncertainty. It is into this changing world that the film's protagonist, physics professor Larry Gopnik is thrown. In O Brother Where Art Thou, "everybody's looking for answers". In The Man Who Wasn't There, we are hearing the question "What kind of a man are you?" In A Serious Man, the repeated question is "What's going on?" We go a step further into the existentialism that lies at the heart of the Coens' film-making.

Larry Gopnik is a schmuck, a schlemiel, a putz; not a macher. After being introduced to him getting checked up in a doctor's surgery, we first see him in action in a comical pose, backside stuck out to a classful of students as he writes on the bottom edge of a huge blackboard, trousers slightly too short.

We are invited to compare him physically to Sy Ableman, the serious man, the macher, who is in the process of taking Larry's wife away from him. Sy is tall, big, bearded, bald and deep-voiced. An alpha male, whose body courses with more testosterone then Larry's. Larry Gopnik is shorter, smaller, clean shaven with a higher-pitched voice. Sy know what he wants. Larry ums and ahs and vacillates ("No - I well, yes, okay" to Dick Dutton; "No - I well, yeah! Sometimes! Or, I don't know!" he tells Rabbi Nachtner). Sy initiates, Larry reacts. Sy drives a range-topping Cadillac; Larry a low-suds Dodge. Sy's name as well as suggesting Ability (Able-man) suggests sophisticated German or Austrian provenance rather than the shtetl that a Gopnik would have harked from. No wonder Larry's wife Judith prefers the widowed Sy to her husband. ['Gopnik' is Russian slang for the under-class rabble, a chav, hołota]

Larry is an outsider in his own fractured family. His wife wants him out, his kids don't care and his brother Arthur has high-functioning autism. Unable to fend for himself, Arthur lives with Larry's family, sleeps on the couch, and occupies the bathroom to daughter Sarah's annoyance. Larry can only realise himself at work, within the cloistered world of the local university's physics faculty. Larry, although intelligent, is a loser even before the Coens' narrative begins to unleash a torrent of woes upon him.

The film is said to be a modern retelling of the biblical Book of Job. It's about a man whose suffering tests his belief in God. In the film, Job's three friends - the three people kindly disposed towards Larry - are Arlen Finkle, the head of the university tenure committee; Don Milgram, Larry's lawyer, and Mimi Nudell, who offers him advice at Lake Nokomis.

"What have I done? I haven't done anything!" he tells his wife Judith when she tells him she wants a divorce. This line is echoed elsewhere: "That's right! I haven't done anything!" he tells Dick Dutton of Columbia Record Club, and when Arlen asks Larry whether there's anything else he's done that can be used to support his tenure application. "I haven't done anything," Larry says. Kindly Arlen - who's rooting for Larry to get the tenure - replies "Don't worry - Doing nothing is not bad, ipso facto".

O but it is.

It is for doing nothing that God has been punishing Larry. If indeed, there is a God.

"I am not an evil man", wails Larry to Arlen.

"I'm a serious - I'm, uh, I've tried to be a serious man," says Larry to Rabbi Marshak's secretary as he unsuccessfully tries to get an audience with the learned sage.

Sorry, Larry, not good enough.

If God exists, then God is punishing Larry for coasting, for being passive, for taking the line of least resistance to life, for being indifferent to the presence of his growing children. For being a passive husband and father. (Contrast the active fatherhood of his goy next-door-neighbour, Gar Brandt with Larry's near-indifference to what his children are up to.) As head of household, Larry lacks any authority. The family is seated around the dinner table. "We should wait [for Arthur]," he tells the family, all ready to start eating. "Are you kidding?" is the response. They all tuck in regardless. Larry's authority is zero.

So we are invited to question Rashi's words with which the film opens: "Accept everything that happens to you with simplicity". Should we? ("Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be/Famine, war, disaster, disease and poverty" to misquote Sir Paul McCartney.) Mere acceptance of mystery (as advocated by the Korean student's father) leads to moral compromise. "Actions always have consequences", Larry tells Clive. Indeed they do. And so does inaction. But Rashi's words "Accept everything that happens to you with simplicity" have another meaning in the context of this film. Larry dwells on everything that happens to him. He thinks and thinks - and when that yields no answers, he asks the rabbis to place his existentialist crises into a religious context. More thinking, still no answers. Rashi is saying 'don't interpret'. "When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope inside you dies - then what?" asks Rabbi Marshak of Danny. A question that Larry should have been asked. 'What to do?' rather than 'Why's this happened?'

The centrepiece of the film for me is the Goy's Teeth scene, in which Rabbi Nachtner attempts to answer Larry's question about what God is trying to tell us. All to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix's Machine Gun, superbly framed and edited. Six minutes of cinematographic excellence. The goy in the Rabbi's anecdote is called Russell Kraus (note the spelling. One 's' in the original 2007 screenplay). If a movie about art had a character called "Picasso Braque" we'd instantly know who was being referred to. Here, it's Bertrand Russell and Karl Kraus. The link between the British mathematician-philosopher and the Austrian writer is the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. [Both Kraus and Wittgenstein were Jews who converted to Christianity.] Stretching a point? Ethan Coen studied philosophy at Princeton and his senior thesis was Two views of Wittgenstein's later philosophy.

The devil is doubt. Uncertainty. The Uncertainty Principle is what Larry Gopnik is lecturing about, which he illustrates it with the thought-experiment of Schrödinger's Cat. The cat is both alive and dead until the observer opens the box. God exists and God doesn't exist - simultaneously. We don't know for sure until we die. The devil is doubt. Uncertainty is the devil. Larry thinks himself to pieces rather than doing something.

Don Milgram - the surname brings to mind the Milgram Experiment, devised by Yale University's Stanley Milgram as a response to the Adolf Eichmann trial. How much pain can you inflict upon someone because you are ordered to? 

Key scenes, key dialogues.
Sy Ableman's death and funeral. It is implied (though you might not catch this on first viewing) that Sy Ableman has his (fatal) car crash at exactly the same time as Larry Gopnik has his (minor) one. Judging by the set-up on the road, one can guess that Sy's impetuous, risk-taking alpha nature prompts him to cut across the unending stream of traffic on the blind corner into the path of a speeding car. Sy gets it from God too. But for totally different reasons than Larry. For being a bullying adulterer, for one. For impatience. For being too active (when Larry is too passive). For doing wrong (rather than doing nothing). The two men's fates are my message from the film: achieve a life of balance.

The structure of the opening and closing sequences echo the structure of a Bach fugue. From the first shot of the main part of the film(inside Danny's ear canal) to the closing one (impending tornado) we have two bracketing sets of sequences, cutting between Danny and Larry (Danny at school, Larry at the doctor's; finally Larry in his office intercut with Danny at school). There are six such intercuts at the beginning and six at the end.

And note the grade-changing scene in this sequence. 'F' erased, replaced with a... 'C'... minus. Phone rings. Cut to Danny's class. And only after the cut back to the ringing telephone do we learn it's Dr Shapiro with some bad, bad news for Larry. "In this office, actions have consequences. Always". Larry, instant karma's gonna get you.

The funeral. We cut from the final line of the classic Goy's Teeth scene to the synagogue. Rabbi Nachtner: "The goy? ... Who cares?" [cut to ] "Sy Ableman was a serious man... " Rabbi Natchner praises Sy to an absurd degree "A tzadik, who knows, maybe even a Lamid Vovnik". Comparing this pompous, home-breaking, self-important egotist to one of the 36 righteous people who protect the world against evil - is stretching a point so far that no one in the congregation who knew Sy could take ever Rabbi Nachtner seriously.

The roof scene - the aerial - tuning into signals from the ether as he catches sight of Mrs Samsky next door sunbathing nude, Bathsheba to Larry's David. As biblical as we can get. If we know the story. The connection is also between Mrs Samsky and Eve, tempting Larry's Adam with drugs and sex.

The pool scene - "It's all shit, Larry" - Arthur has finally broken and fallen into despair. Doubt has conquered. He and Larry are comparing whose life is more miserable. Is it worse to have nothing or to have something and have it taken away?

Dem Milner's Trern - [The Miller's Tears] Sung by Sidor Belarsky, a song about an old Jewish miller expelled from his village in Russia. We hear it when Larry is expelled from his marital bedroom to the living room couch (mirroring the pogroms and the Jews' expulsion to the Pale of Settlement), and again when Larry is cast out further still to the Jolly Roger (the Jewish diaspora to the New World).

The Bar Mitzvah scene - Danny, out of his box... the suspense of will he make it or not... he stumbles, the scratchy yod... he stutters... but he finds his voice and starts reciting the Torah portion. The curse is momentarily broken. Larry and Judith hold hands, seemingly reconciled. But for how long?

Let's take a look at Danny and what he and his generation represents. This would be the viewpoint of the teenage Coen brothers, this is what they saw around them in 1967 Jewish Minnesota. This highly personal take on events (in effect placing their experience centre stage in a world in flux) ensures that this is by far their most meaningful film to date. The goings-on in the film are what happens when the rock'n'roll fuelled Pandora's box was opened by the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s. Wine, women and song give way to sex and drugs and rock and roll. The youth counter-culture steamrollers the memory of intellectual, Jewish fin-de-siècle Vienna. Foul mouthed youths with no respect for their elders or siblings. The Gopnik's son-and-heir is on the road to nowhere. Authority and certainty are dead.

The tornado heading towards Danny and his classmates is a metaphor. It's the maelstrom heading the way of their (and the Coens') entire generation. Haight-Ashbury, Vietnam, drugs, social breakdown, Watergate, inner city decay, AIDS, 9/11, climate change. The Old Certainties of conservative middle-class middle America that Larry's generation inherited will melt away in Danny's.

And this tornado threatens the Jewish state too. For the film is set in mid-May 1967. The calendar in Rabbi Scott's office is open on May-June 1967. Larry's had 14 days to listen to Santana Abraxas and the June selection is Cosmo's Factory [both actually 1970 LPs]. The Six-Day War is about to kick off. A war with which Egypt's President Nassar intended to "wipe Israel off the face of the earth".

The Coens, like many of mankind's great storytellers and entertainers, are Jewish. The Simpsons (Matt Groening) runs rich with Jewish wisdom, as do the films of Steven Spielberg and Mike Leigh[bermann]. And John Landis (Animal House, Blues Brothers). Sitting through Hebrew School or yeshiva, is not just a question of mindlessly reciting Torah portions (the take we get in A Serious Man); it is about discussing the wisdom with the rabbi, interpretation of the interpretation.

For my generation, slightly younger, raised in Polish West London in the '60s and '70s, the parallels are there; the portrayal of the Hebrew School reminded me of our Polish Saturday school, (Ivrit! / Po polsku!) the community-shared rites of passage in the Polish church, our interspersing of Polish words into our English conversation, our Polish doctor and Polish dentist.

This is a film that will delight Intellectual Nerds of a Certain Age, (INCAs) who've outgrown seeking interpretations of infantile comic-book derived movies, and who face mid-life existentialist problems of their own. (Are the equations written out by Larry Gopnik on the blackboard scientifically correct? What are the alphabetic equivalents of Dick Dutton's and Sy Ableman's respective phone numbers? Does it matter? I think the Coens would say "no - it's not that obvious". In fact, I don't think they've considered these things to the depths that fans of this film have - which is good. It's not their job to pontificate on their films - only to keep on making new ones. The pontification is left to INCAs and JINCAs (Jewish INCAs). Type in "A Serious Man" + interpretation into Google, and today you get a 574,000 - over half a million - results.

My recommended reviews of A Serious Man:

David Poland (on video - well-balanced Jewish perspective)
Metaphilm (Pushing the interpretative limits)
Fr. Robert Barron (a Catholic priest's perspective on video)
Filmwell on religion in the film
Eric Lundgard, Minnesotan goy
Exploding Kinetoscope: Taking it seriously
Only the Cinema: One big cosmic joke?
Cinema Styles: Order and Uncertainty
Kevin Miller: In the Luxury of Reflection
Coosa Creek: Deep thoughts
Jonathan Friedman: Theodicy and God's Wrath
Todd Alcott: What does the protagonist want?
Getafilm Review: Nor martyr, nor hero, nor crook

Friday, 20 August 2010

The darker side of Dworzec Centralny

Down down, down down, and I'll take you down in the underground, down in the dark, down in the pits...

Having written two pieces about the goings on below the Dworzec Centralny (here and here), I decided yesterday to explore the further reaches of the station, visiting parts where few ever venture. Visual inspiration for film-makers wishing to take up the story.

Above: Warsaw's skyline looking from Złote Tarasy, over the Central Station. It's Thursday night, the capital's buzzing. But what happens below city streets? Let's go to (publicly accessible) parts of the station where the passenger rarely strays. Below: stairs leading to the western end of Platform 4. Let's descend, shall we?

Looking across from the bottom of these stairs, you can see how empty it is out here. Most trains stop in the middle sectors of the station, which is where most passengers congregate, by the escalators. The station looks empty in these pics, but bear in mind that this is rush hour (just gone six o'clock on a midweek evening).

The Dworzec Centralny lies within the Tunel Średnicowy, the 2.3km (mile-and-half) long tunnel that takes trains under the very heart of the city.

Above: looking west from the end of Platform 4. Two station cleaners taking a break (left). There are level crossings at this end allowing baggage trolleys to cross the tracks. There are no signs prohibiting passengers from crossing, simply because none ever stray this far down the 500m long platforms. Below: Looking east from the end of Platform 1.

I often have dreams of the nooks and crannies under Paddington Station (through which I commuted for many years with my fold-up Brompton bike); Victorian brick, cast iron vaulted arches, tunnels running this way and that, dark nooks and crannies. Dworzec Centralny, built over a century and a quarter later, has a different atmosphere - concrete, steel, tiling. But the ambience of those dark and distant corners is similar.

Above: Ramp leading down to the storage tunnel under the platform level. There are four such ramps, at the eastern end of Platforms 1 and 2 and at the western end of Plaforms 3 and 4. Note the damp stains on the concrete floor.

Below: Stairs leading from the eastern end of Platform 2 to the corridor linking W-wa Centralna and W-wa Śródmieście. In the centre of the pic the ramp leading down to the underground meat processing factories.

Below: a passageway connects the eastern end of Dworzec Centralny with W-wa Śródmieście suburban station. Here, on Level -2, there are numerous (locked) wooden doors. What's behind them - small storage rooms, or access to larger underground halls, or further passageways?

Next to the police station (komisariat) on Level 0 (north passageway), I found a door ajar. I pushed it open to grab this shot. Note the dirt on the walls, grubby floor, fluoresent lighting. Could there be illicit food preparation operations going on here too, right under the noses of the police?

If you too have a hate/love relationship with Dworzec Centralny, its smells, its clientele, its bing-bong chime announcements, its association with the beginnings and ends of journeys into the Polish heartlands, then a visit here is a must. Refurbishment has started, so by the time the football championships kick off you won't recognise the place. Hopefully.

And another article about the underground kebab factory - and its forthcoming place in local urban legend - from TVN (in Polish).

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Kebab underground - more revelations

O what a fascinating story - enough to get me blogging through my lunchbreak to share it with you, dear readers!

The local sections of Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita have both followed up on yesterday's scoop about the underground kebab meat factory located under Warsaw's central station.

Journalists followed voivodship sanitary-epidemiological inspectors and policemen under the platforms of Dworzec Centralny yesterday. Prior to this visit, PKP's spokeman assured journalists that all illegal meat processing has stopped and that the case is now closed. It turned out otherwise - although the main warehouse had been shut down, the inspectors found a Vietnamese man preparing vegetables and, in another room, some processing of meat was going on, with 10kg of meat lying around waiting to be turned into kebabs. The guy with the meat was landed with a 500 zł fine ('for sanitary shortcomings'), although the inspectors could not find anything unhygienic about the Vietnamese vegetables. (This bears out my experience of eating VietPol food - I've never had food-poisoning from it in 13 years.) The meat operation seems to have been dramatically scaled down - inspectors found invoices lying around suggesting that this one had been processing up to 200kg (a fifth of a ton) of meat a day.

The dodgy kebab meat from here sold for 9zł (2 quid) a kilo compared to 15zł (3 quid) for the legitimate stuff.

Yesterday's report that the main kebab meat processing plant had been run by a Turk drew criticism from Turkish kebab vendors. "The operations under the Central Station were run by citizens of Egypt and former Yugoslavia," a Turkish owner of a kebab meat producer told Rzeczpospolita.

One consequence of this affair is that there will not be any food preparation allowed in the refurbished Central Station - only prepared food such as sandwiches and cakes will be sold.

My photos of the lower depths of Warszawa Centralna here.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Source of Warsaw Central's stench revealed

What a lovely story. Anyone who has ever passed through Warsaw's Dworzec Centralny (central station) will have noticed its unique aroma, combination of body odour, urine, excrement, fried food and cheap disinfectant. Until now, I had attributed the stench the fact that most Polish passenger carriages have toilets that flush directly down onto the tracks below, and that these toilets are used while trains stand at the station (despite notices prohibiting this).

But no - there's an even more profound cause. While carrying out a 47m złoty (₤10m) refurbishment of the station in advance of the Euro2012 football championships, the railway authorities discovered one level beneath the underground platforms, an illegal meat processing factory that was preparing kebabs for use all over Warsaw.

The railway tunnel under Warsaw has long played host to the city's homeless. The disused storeroom under the platforms (level -2) was taken over by the homeless, who lived there some while, before being evicted from there by a 'Turkish investor' who also had no right to be there. The storeroom, said to be half a kilometre long, was used to 'store and process meat 'of dubious provenance' on a large scale - and, according to PKP's spokeman was supplied to kebab outlets across the capital. There were no health and safety or hygiene measures in place here at all.

The worst part of this story that the fat rendered from the meat was simply poured down the drains - blocking them as it solidified. So the urine and disinfectant and other fluids would accumulate and the smell would get worse and worse.

I hope we can expect the odour to disappear. It was however very characteristic of the station (immediately associates itself with the three rising chimes heralding announcements such as 'pociąg pospieszny z Warszawy Wschodniej do Krakowa Głównego przez Włoszczową Północną wjedzie na torze ósmym przy peronie czwartym. Pociąg jest objęty całkowitą rezerwacją miejsc. Wagony numer osiem, siedem i sześć zatrzymują się w sektorze pierwszym...' The very words conjure up the memory of that smell in my nostrils.

There are many questions surrounding this story - which I'm sure will run and run. How is it that a large-scale meat processing operation could take place unnoticed by the station authorities? Was there a pay-off to security staff and managers to allow the business to continue operations unmolested by officialdom?

The discussion continues on pl.misc.kolej, where many commentators have pointed out that there are CCTV cameras around the station, which should have recorded trolley-loads of meat being moved around the subterranean passages. And the role of SOK (Straż Ochrony Koleji or railway police) in turning a blind eye to what was going on.

More revelations about Kebabgate here.

My photos of the lower depths of Warszawa Centralna here.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

We shall not see its likes again

I wrote about the imminent demise of the footbridge over Puławska by ul Jagielska and ul. Drumli back in April, when a collapsing section of the bridge (right over the bus stop) caused its closure. After nearly four months, the bridge is being dismantled.

A sorry sight it is; something that's been a part of my local landscape for as long as I've lived round here (over 13 years). Left: An FSC Żuk, that iconic Polish light commercial vehicle, makes its way under all that was left of the bridge yesterday.

By this evening all that remained of the footbridge was two stumps, one flight of stairs high, on either side of the main road. By tomorrow it will all be gone - levelled with the ground.

What will happen here is still unknown - a costly new bridge - or leaving the temporary pedestrian lights (to the irritation of Piaseczno's commuters) here for good.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Happiness, Polish-style

A recent post was picked up by fellow-blogger Paulina at Perfect Polish. She points out that the words 'happy' and 'lucky' are both translated into Polish as szczęśliwy. (Just looking at that word must make English speakers tongues go all weird.) So time for a discourse on this subject. Consider szczęśliwie, nic złego się nie stało ('luckily nothing bad happened') and jestem szczęśliwy ('I am happy'). In the first case, the cause of the good fortune is external. In the second, it is an internal state of mind, an emotion. So why, given the unrelated nature of the two concepts - do they find themselves in Polish occupying one word? Latin, French, Spanish, Italian... 

Two words. German, like Polish has - one word for both (glücklich). As does Dutch (gelukkig). 'Glad?' The Swedish and Norwegian word for 'happy'. The Russian (udachlivy for lucky, compare to udać in Polish - to work out, i.e. a lucky person is one for whom things have worked out, as opposed to a nieudacznik, someone upon whom the fates have not smiled kindly.) Schastlivy, Russian for happy, is basically the same word as the Polish szczęśliwy. Given my theory of linguistic blanks pointing us towards cultural difference, is there something about the Polish and Nordic attitudes to luck and happiness that make them different to the peoples all around them? Any comments, dear readers? Luck, good fortune, is something that troubles philosophers deeply. 

The chances of us being alive, for example. Multiply the chances of your parents meeting, by the chances of their parents meeting, and so on through evolution to the earliest forms of primitive life. Each and every stage, each and every mating (and we are talking hundreds of billions) had to be a success for you to have been born. And on a planet that's just the right distance from a star that's just the right brightness and warmth. In a universe that's just the right age to host planetary development. So then, here we are. You, me, them, everybody. Consciously aware of what's around us. The products of a szczęśliwy traf ('lucky strike') so infinitesimally improbable as to make the 1 in 14,000,000 odds against winning the lottery as likely as flipping heads or tails. There's the luck bit. The happiness bit should be a concomitant. We are - we should rejoice in being! Our internal state of mind should be predicated from the outset by the realisation of how the purest of chance brought us to be. Yet too often, it's not; we lose sight of the wonder of our consciousness, and in doing so, we become unhappy. 

 The Mike Leigh film, Happy-go-Lucky, was released in Poland under the title of Happy-go-Lucky, czyli co nas uszczęśliwia, which can mean both '...what makes us happy', or 'what causes us to be lucky'.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

It was 90 years ago today

That Bolshevism was stopped at the gates of Warsaw, the tide of Red barbarism halted and turned back. One of the crucial battles of world history, the Soviets were not to flood on through Poland into Western Europe turning war-ravaged, vanquished Germany into a Soviet Socialist Republic.

Intent on bringing World Revolution from one end of the Continent to the other, the Red Army led by Trotsky (aided and abetted by Stalin) came crashing through the no-man's land of the kresy (Polish eastern borderlands) pushing westward at alarming speed. "Onward to Berlin, Paris and London, over the corpse of Poland!" was the slogan of the Bolsheviks.

The British and French could see the peril. Having sided unsuccessfully with the anti-Bolshevik Whites in the Russian Civil War, they had no appetite (this was less than two years after the end of WWI) for another large-scale intervention.

And so it was down to the Polish Army, led by commander-in-chief Jozef Piłsudski, to stop the Bolshevik surge.

And this the Poles did 90 years ago at Radzymin, a town just 15 miles (24km) from the centre of Warsaw. The Red advance was broken, the Bolshevik army routed.

Trotsky and his ideologues were convinced that as soon as the Red Army had crossed into Poland, it would be greeted as heroic liberators by the oppressed toiling masses. This was not to be. Polish workers and peasants showed no interest at all in the new proletarian order being offered by the Soviets. Poles of all social classes were far more concerned with the rebuilding of the Polish nation after 120 years of partition than with any new-fangled revolutionary ideas.

The Polish victory in 1920, like the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland on 17 September 1939 and the Katyń massacres were all events that were not commemorated (or even publicly mentioned) during the communist era.

Over 25,000 Bolshevik soldiers were killed in the battle. For the first time, a cemetary for them (at least the few whose remains have been identified) has been opened, in Ossów. The graves are marked not with red stars, but with Orthodox crosses - a sign that most of the fallen would have spent more of their lives identifying with their religion than with the new order. The survivors either fled back to Soviet Russia or to internment in East Prussia - or else ended up in Polish captivity. The fact that a similar number of the prisoners-of-war perished compared to the number of Polish officers murdered at Katyń has been used by Russian propagandists as an argument why Russia should not apologise for the massacres. However: a) the Bolsheviks died of typhus or starvation (in a period of epidemic and famine) rather than a bullet in the back of the head and b) they were PoWs because their invasion had failed.

W-wa Jeziorki station at midnight

Like the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw (see post above) centred on a large-scale reenactment. Part of this was a period train, bringing reenactors to the battlefield. Last night, the train (an anachronistic Ty2) returned from the battlefield to the railway museum at Chabówka, coming through W-wa Jeziorki. Ty2-911 is a loco I'd seen before - in Dobra - so the sight of it at my local station was worth snapping.

Above: Is that it? Lights in the distance. The steam train will be hauled by an electric or diesel loco, so I'm not expecting steam whistles or plumes of steam. It comes. It's not the train I'm waiting for. Should I wait? I wait 70 minutes and go home. The train does pass. But half an hour later, by which time I'm fast asleep.

Still, it was an opportunity to photograph our local station at midnight - pictures tweaked to create an approximation of the atmosphere I felt.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

In search of happiness

Deep, eh, readers? A train of though kicked off a few days ago by a conversation I had with my wife in which we both agreed that I am generally happier in my life than she is in hers.

Once again - nature or nurture? Are some of us born to be happy in life, while others, living in similar circumstances wallow in woe?

A run of small moments at which one can say - "Yes - I am content" is a better recipe for happiness than seeking it in expensive pleasures (exotic holidays, flash cars, more and more consumer durables). I remember a friend of my late father-in-law telling us how much more content he was in life when, as a child in pre-war Poland, all that was needed to achieve happiness was a slice of bread with smalec (lard) and a glass of cool, clean water to wash it back with.

What's made me happy over the past few days? A phone call from my mother in which she told me about a new biography of Adam Smith that she wants to buy. It's great that at the age of 82, she's still intellectually curious about what drives our world. Blasting through the Las Kabacki forest on my bike on Thursday night. Looking out of the train window on my way to work on Wednesday and seeing how much progress has been made on the S79. Reading over lunch at the Vietnamese bar round the corner from my office about the Polish victory over the Bolsheviks 90 years ago (more about this soon). Listening to Earth Wind and Fire (what an excellent band they were!). Discovering that Tesco sells excellent Chilean and Australian dry red wines for less than ten zlotys. Cooking breakfast for Moni this morning (scrambled eggs with ham). These things all brought about a state of mind that I could consciously associate with 'happiness'.

This story from today's Daily Telegraph (stumbled upon as so often by chance), is extremely interesting. Apparently, vivid dreamers have better memories than those who wake up in remembering nothing that they've dreamed. There's a lot more beneath the surface of this one - vivid dreamers have other characteristics (higher IQs, greater imagination) than those who dismiss them as 'dreamers'. I would go further; vivid dreamers are happier individuals than those who get out of bed in the morning thinking nothing's happened in their minds over night.

So it is a nature thing? A happiness gene? Well, I think so.

A controversial linkage - but one which I believe neuroscientists will be pursuing over the next decades.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Eating Indian in Warsaw

When we moved to Warsaw 13 years ago, there was not much here by way of ethnic food. The past decade has seen an explosion in Vietnamese, sushi and pizza restaurants. If you were after Indian, there was the Tandoor Palace (Marszałkowska corner of Al. Armii Ludowej) and that other place we don't go to (the Maharajah). The Tandoor Palace has been there for years and years, run by Charanjit, a Sikh originally from Singapore, and an excellent venue for British expats who miss their suburban curry house. Many's the fine meal I've enjoyed here (both on business and socially).

Within the past few years, several new Indian restaurants have popped up, enhancing Warsaw's ethnic eating experience. This is so important. I discovered Indian* cuisine at university and have, as has the entire British nation, taken a great appetite for it. Chicken tikka masala is Britain's favourite dish.

There's the India Curry (ul. Żurawia 22), no longer new - I remember the opening event... six years ago? I was here a few weeks ago for a blogmeet; the atmosphere is pleasant and relaxed - not too crowded - but it is not cheap.

Earlier this year, we made two sorties across the river to newly-opened Indian restaurants - LaBono (Grochowska 224, by Rondo Wiatraczna), reasonable food, not too-heavily spiced (i.e. aimed at the Polish palate), and by comparison with left-bank Indian restaurants - cheap. The other one was Arti (Francuska 5A). A first visit (seven of us, in winter) proved wildly successful. The food was unbelievably cheap (we thought the bill would have been cheap for four!) and because there was no drinks licence, we bought wine from the Carrefour across the road. A return to Arti in May saw a drinks licence in place (so wine was double supermarket prices) and the food prices had shot up to levels normally seen in the established Indian restaurants.

Still, the food at Arti was excellent (they do vindaloo, and when it says vindaloo, they mean a real blaster. And mutton dishes). So last month I tried the original Arti, (Al. Jerozolimskie 122, between the Mexican restaurant Amigos and the 'ToiToi' buliding by Plac Zawiszy). Again, excellent Indian food, as the British would understand it, though not cheap by Warsaw (or indeed London!) standards.

So I was delighted when my good friend Chris (a British expat gone native in Warsaw) suggested a meal at the Ganesh in Ursynów (al. KEN 93, by Stokłosy Metro. There's another one on Wilcza 50/52)

[As I write I'm eating the remains of last night's meal. I'm an Indian restaurant doggy bag obsessive. Nothing gets thrown away. There was enough left over for a) breakfast for me, b) lunch for Moni and c) a final bowlful for my supper. It is rare that a restaurant critic can be writing about food at the very instant he's eating it, but such is the case.]

And excellent it is too. Delivered just the way the British palate craves. The nomenclature of dishes at the Ganesh is unusual - a keema nan is called a Kabuli nan here, and the mutton sizzler definitely did not come out of the tandoor (clay oven). [It's the little differences.] Still, it's the taste that counts, and the food here is big on taste. Mutton's on the menu. Notice: mutton, not lamb, just as in Britain one eats beef rather than veal. Killing and eating baby sheep is somehow wrong in Poland, while little baby cows are hard to swallow in England. Culture clash.

The bill was not small either (admittedly Chris and I downed nine beers between us); total came to three stoovers plus tips (ie. 30 quid a head, a lot by London standards). But then in London I'd be eating Indian at least three times a month; here it's the occasional treat.

Another good friend and fellow blogger Krzysztof tells me that Katowice already has three Indian restaurants, which suggests there's room for many more in both Warsaw and the Silesian conurbation. We ate at the Arti (above) with his cousin Paweł, who'd never eaten Indian before; the vindaloo quite defeated Krzystof, who knows his way around an Indian menu. But Paweł - who I thought would blanch at the killer heat of this dish - kept on spooning on more and more. This suggests to me that Poland is in the same situation that England was in 40 years ago. Indian food, which is exciting, exotic - addictive, almost - will catch on here too. The more restaurants open, the greater the choice, the higher the quality, the lower the prices.

Interesting too, is the nomenclature. 'India' in Polish is Indie (plural). The adjective 'Indian' is indyjsk/i/a/ie; Indian restaurant is restauracja indyjska. And yet - even in the press - an often misued adjective pertaining to India is hindusk/i/a/ie, literally 'Hindustani'.

If you are an Indian restaurateur who has chanced by this blog post - give Warsaw a try. The potential here is huge.

* 90% of 'Indian' restaurants in the UK are actually Bangladeshi-owned. To them is owed the standard British korma - curry - madras - vindaloo - phall scale of hotness. Indian restaurants have long contributed more to the British economy than the steel industry, and employed more people.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Old school Saska

Saska Kępa - just across the river from Powiśle - a trendy and sought-after place to live in Warsaw. Its main drag - ul. Francuska - has more restaurants and bars per metre than any other part of the capital. It's being dug up and beautified ahead of the Euro2012 football finals, which will take place in the new national stadium, under construction on the other side of Rondo Waszyngtona.

But here - on an unnamed side street not too far from any of the above-mentioned thoroughfares - some Old School. A Funny Old Car (FSM Syrena 105). A 100% indigenous Polish motor, unlike anything else built in Poland under communism. The FSO Warszawa was essentially a licence-built Soviet GAZ M-20, the rest Polski Fiats. The Syrena was analogous to the Trabant - three-cylinder, two-stroke engine. Their respective nicknames - skarpeta, ('sock') and mydelniczka ('soapdish').

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Dismal grafitti yields to decent street art

Two new stations were built along our railway line into town, W-wa Aleje Jerozolimskie and W-wa Żwirki i Wigury were opened in September 2008. At the same time, W-wa Rakowiec was refurbished to the same standard. Within minutes of the stations being opened, the dumb-ass element of graffiti vandals set to work on the virgin bare concrete bays which housed the platform seating. Aggressive obscenity relating to football teams quickly filled up the empty spaces that the architects failed to see as a natural whiteboard for graffiti. And so it went for nearly two years - until last month, when the street artists pounced.

The filth and the fury was painted over and in its place something visually interesting. Each station has a theme - W-wa Aleje Jerozolimskie storks and flamingos in comic-book convention, W-wa Rakowiec has railway-related art; but my favourites are from W-wa Żwirki i Wigury. Here the art harks back to 1940s and 1950s America, as regular readers will know, my Favourite Period of All Time Ever.

Norman Rockwell-inspired template (szablon) art on the platforms at W-wa Żwirki i Wigury

So much better than what was here before. Artist - I applaud your works. And PLK (Poland's rail infrastructure manager) for backing this initiative.

Four chaingang convicts. Opening scene of O Brother Where Art Thou? Po' Lazarus indeed.

An' then the high sheriff (CRASH)

He told his deputy

Want you go out an' bring me Laz'rus (CRASH)

Bring him dead or 'live

Lord, Lord, bring him dead or 'live (CRASH)

UPDATE: September 2010. Most of the murals at W-wa Żwirki i Wigury (above) have been sprayed over by dumb-ass vandals. Tragic.

Monday, 9 August 2010

A place in the country, everyone's ideal

As I mentioned last year, Ziggy and Zosia's place in Mamrotowo is a beautiful house in a beautiful village. And surrounded by beautiful countryside. A cycling expedition is called for.

The route is mainly off-road - or more precisely, on-road, though the roads round here tend not to be asphalted. There's a lot of forest track too, either damp clay (good) or dry sand (bad).

Left: Instinct suggests we head straight on. The map's too vague. We take the counter-intuitative decision and turn right, which proves to be correct. Destination - hardware store in Eksportowo Łomżeńskie, where Ziggy will buy 500 x 14ml tinlets of Humbrol Authentic oil paints for his front door. MC10, Polish Crimson (as per the Napoleonic lancers). Sadly, the paint proved unavailable.

From time to time, the sandy trails get too much for a bike. The fat tyres on my Cannondale mountain bike prove the better able to cope than Ziggy's skinny-tyred Kelly's trekking bike.

Above: This unasphalted road from Czarny Stok towards the main road was properly hardened and a good surface for cycling along. Downhill was a blast. In the end, we covered 35km (ie what I'd do riding to work and back, though without the traffic).

Right: The Triple Rock Baptist Church? Guest preacher, the beloved Cleophus James? Certainly looks the part (could do with some neon though) Looking quite un-Polish, the Catholic Church in Nowiny Zdroje.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Running with the storm

To Białystok and beyond - on Friday I journeyed to Ziggy and Zosia's place, Mamrotowo, north of Podlasie's capital. The journey was memorable - we drove out of Warsaw as an almighty storm was brewing, a storm that would kick off as we reached Marki, some 10km into our route, and would continue, unabated for another three hours.

Above: The sky's getting very dark, yet sunset is not for another 40 minutes. Before reaching the next set of lights, the heavens would open.

The lightning to the north and to the east of us would flash several times a minute; the rain was so intense that traffic was moving at 50kmh (30mph), with dancing stalagmites of rainwater bouncing up off the asphalt ahead. When the hail started, it sounded like our car was being pounded by shrapnel of anti-aircraft artillery. Under every roadbridge along the way, two or three cars were parked on the hard shoulder, waiting for the storm to abate. It showed no signs of doing so. Neither Ziggy nor I had ever seen such rain, lashing down with such intensity for so long.

Above: We reach a roadside restaurant outside Ostrów Mazowieckie. An hour and half separate the distance between the two photos - 90km. We spent an hour here (mushroom soup, cabbage soup with pork ribs, gołąbki, a huge golonka (pork knuckle), two portions of chips, one beer and two cokes - 40 zł or eight quid). We came out and it was still pouring, and would continue to do so for another half and hour or so.

Driving back today, I saw that north-east of Wyszków, the wind had brought down some 15 or so trees which must have blocked the road shortly after we passed on Friday night.

I returned to watch the news and hear that Poland has been visited by the third wave of floods this summer, while Russia burns (Moscow +38C forecast for Tuesday). The weather is getting ever more extreme.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Value for money for commuters

I've written about the Warsaw travel card before; today I took the unprecented step of buying a 90-day extension to my karta miejska. I'm good for travelling around the capital (Warsaw's zone 1 at least) until 2nd November. My 90-day travel card cost me 196 zloty, which at today's exchange rate is just under ₤41. For three months, mind. A mere 45p a day. ₤13 a month.

A monthly travelcard for four zones of London (a similar radius from the heart of the capital) costs ₤141.40. ELEVEN times as much. And average salaries in Warsaw are only two-and-half times lower than in London.

"Ah, but London has a more extensive network of Underground lines, buses and suburban railways..." the carper will carp. But then how often did I ever wish to travel on a whim to Walthamstowe Central, Penge West, Morden or anywhere else other than Ealing Broadway? 99% of my usage of a London travelcard was for use between home and the office and other points around central London. In, out and around locally. Not for making huge excursions around the endless expanse of dreary suburbia stretching out in a 12 mile radius of Centre Point.

Given the incredible disparity in public transport prices, it amazes me that Varsovians still choose to use their own cars to drive to work, given that cars and petrol cost (roughly) the same in Poland, suggesting that car parking is too cheap here and that a city-centre congestion charge zone should be introduced.

Warsaw's authorities are making it ever clearer that the car is not the city's best friend. More bus lanes will be introduced (Puławska's waiting for that expressway junction, so it'll be a year or more before Piaseczno's benighted commuters are forced to ditch their cars).

The city is getting better with the buses and trams (new stock is regularly being introduced), but I despair for those depending on Koleje Mazowieckie - there are only two town-bound trains from Piaseczno between 7 and 8 in the morning. KM could easily run eight and fill them with refugees from the bunged-up Puławska. Officially, we have to wait for the new rail link from the Piaseczno line to Okęcie airport, as there's single line working here right now - a lame excuse. Where there's a will there's a way - but Poland's railway managers show no will for anything other than sponging more money from government coffers.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The politics of the symbol

Doesn't it occur to any of the commentators about the ongoing battle for the Smolensk cross outside the presidential palace that it's but a distraction?

Politicians on both sides are using the battle over symbols to sideline any meaningful discussions about public finance reform, reducing the budget deficit and national debt. THIS is key. Policy, not politics. (I was interested to see in last week's Economist an Italian minister saying that those two, distinct, words could only be translated into Italian, as in Polish, with one word - la politica/polityka.)

There's a party-political game going on as well, for anyone caring to look an inch beneath the surface.

President-elect Komorowski could have said, "Hey, it's just a cross. It doesn't bother me - or indeed anyone else. Leave it there, replace it eventually with a permanent memorial of some sort, end of issue." But no. He insisted that it be moved. This was a calculated political act, designed to stir up the usual nutters who could be guaranteed to come up with a good show for the media in cases like this. It was bound to provoke the PiSites who would side with the weirdos. In short, a trap for PiS, who walked right into it.

Komorowski and PO are using the issue of the Smolensk Cross to paint PiS into a corner. And they are doing so successfully, if my reading of social attitudes is right. (Well, here in Warsaw, at least.) "Give 'em enough rope," PO is saying. Since losing the presidential election, PiS has been straying ever more deeply into LPR country. And as they do so, their electability declines.

The strategy is working. A wedge is being driven between 'normal' Poles who see themselves as rational, civilised people, siding with the moderate clergymen, scouts, policemen, the vast majority of public opinion and the media; and then we have 'nutters' who see conspiracies, traitors and agents everywhere. PiS is allowing itself to get tarnished as the 'nutters' party.

Nationalist Catholics, to whom the antics on Krakowskie Przedmieście plays, represent one-twentieth, maybe less, of Poland's population. The ones who outside the presidential palace were calling priests traitors and scouts bolsheviks are politically a tiny, weeny, minority. This is where PiS's electorate will end up by the time of next year's parliamentary elections if these shenanigans continue.

I went along to see for myself. The atmosphere this evening outside the palace was tense though I could not feel any aggression in the air. People were discussing the pros and cons, trying not to let emotions run into the debate for fear of sparking anger. A middle-aged woman was discussing with two men, one older, one younger. "Why are you always bringing Jews into it? It only serves to undermine your argument," she said. The younger man replied. "See that restaurant across the street there? Magda Gessler owns it. 14 and 15 year-olds are regularly seen staggering out of it, completely drunk."

I'm sure the very next opinion polls we see published in the wake of this business will show a marked drop in PiS's support at the expense of PO and the ex-communists.

It will stay as long as politicians continue to benefit from it.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Pride and anger

Pride at our Eddie marching through Warsaw to commemorate the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising on Sunday. Anger at the riot caused by attempts to move the cross placed outside the presidential palace after the Smolensk disaster. Firstly, why move the cross? Let the fools have their tartare sauce (to quote The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns.) Now, that faction of Polish society (who believe that Lech Kaczyński was murdered, the presidential elections were fixed, that premier Tusk and president-elect Komorowski are agents of Moscow) are seen to have won a moral victory.

Who cares whether the cross is here or at St. Anne's Cathedral? Who cares whether the Warsaw Uprising Museum is named after Lech Kaczyński or not? What does matter is decent roads and railways, an efficient and transparent tax system, world-class universities, proper waste-water treatment, an effective healthcare service and an environment in which small business can flourish. The rest is detail. Don't waste time fighting the weirdos. Let them have their way on the symbols. Let the grown-ups get on instead with the substantive task at hand - turning Poland into a globally-competitive economy - for the good of all its citizens. Then the causes of weirdoism - poverty and ignorance - will naturally wane.

Today, Moni and I went to Kino Luna to see the new Coen Brothers' film, A Serious Man, a film we've both recently seen before, but were so taken by that we had to see again, this time in a cinema. Definitely, to us, their best yet (of 14). Waiting for the film to start, I was moved to take this picture (right) of the church on Plac Zbawiciela (Saviour's Place). The film opens with the words, in white, on black "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you". A good motto for our times.